Hamid Karzai stays on in Afghanistan — hoping for the best, but unable to leave
KABUL, Afghanistan — When the Taliban reclaimed Kabul last August, the U.S.-backed government collapsed and hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the country.
Former president Hamid Karzai was not one of them.
Karzai served from 2002 to 2014 and has remained a major figure in the country even after leaving office. His name still marks one of the buildings at Kabul's international airport, although the Taliban have formally renamed it.
It's one of many ways in which Afghanistan looks different under Taliban rule. Western aid has largely dried up, and the U.S. froze some $7 billion of funds from Afghanistan's central bank to keep it out of the Taliban's hands. The economy has collapsed, and unemployment and food insecurity are widespread.
The Taliban have also tightened restrictions on women and girls, ordering them to wear head-to-toe clothing on the rare occasions they venture out in public, and banning them from attending school beyond 6th grade (despite earlier reassurances otherwise).
A team of Morning Edition journalists visiting Afghanistan met with Karzai to hear his experience and thoughts on the direction of the country.
Karzai said he feared for his safety, but not because of the Taliban — though that would have been understandable, since the earlier generation of the Taliban captured and executed president Mohammad Najibullah when they took Kabul in 1996.
"The Taliban are Afghans. They belong to this country. We know them, they know us. I felt external forces, and feared that more," Karzai said, mentioning foreign countries and elements within Pakistan, in particular.
He stayed and met with Taliban leaders, and said that they all seemed to want the same thing: a peaceful and progressing Afghanistan. One year in, is it heading in that direction?
"In terms of [an] end to widespread fighting and conflict, we are happy — there's more stability, there's more security," Karzai said. "But in terms of Afghanistan having a government that all Afghan people find themselves [in], we still have a way to go. In terms of the economy of the country, it's a disaster. In terms of Afghans leaving their own country, it's a huge disaster and a shame upon us. And this is something that the Taliban have to address."
Karzai wants the U.S. to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan
The Taliban acknowledges that there are problems, according to Karzai. And, as he puts it, the U.S. is guilty of making "immense mistakes" in Afghanistan, too.
He is still angry about civilian casualties during the war, saying the U.S. bombed the wrong people so often that he refuses to believe it was a mistake. Independent analysts say the U.S.-trained Afghan troops were even more brutal. The atrocities they committed over the years further turned Afghan civilians against the republic that Karzai led, which was already discredited by corruption.
Karzai also takes issue with the way U.S. troops left Afghanistan, calling the day of their withdrawal "very dishonorable." Families were separated amidst the chaos, and some Afghans desperate to evacuate clung to a military plane as it took off. At least two people fell to their deaths, which Karzai called a "disgrace to both of us."
He said there were things the U.S. could do to help the Afghan people now, including unfreezing the country's financial reserves.
"I need for the United States government to correct its mistakes in Afghanistan, to help the Afghan people stand back on their feet," he said.
Karzai says the Taliban want America's trust, but need the Afghan peoples' first
The U.S. has pledged to provide humanitarian assistance and advocate for human rights protections in Afghanistan — even after accusing the Taliban of violating its side of the peace agreement by sheltering al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed by in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last week.
Karzai said all of the Taliban leaders he had met had expressed a desire for better relations with the U.S. But he said there were things they must do first to gain trust and make progress within their own country.
"We must make sure that all the Afghan people see themselves belonging to this country and represented by the government, and that we take all the necessary steps to prove to the rest of the world that we mean well for Afghanistan," he said.
Girls' education is one example. Karzai worries the ban sets the whole country back, warning that "a decade from now we'll be worse than what we are now."
To Karzai, there are many reasons why the Taliban should take steps to prove to the world that they are trying to better the country.
"That will also make it easier for someone like me to go into the international community and say, 'Well, we're now on the right path towards a better future and deserve support,'" he said.
But Karzai can't go out into the international community, even if he wanted to. He said he had asked the Taliban for permission to travel abroad for several functions and events, but had always been denied.
As they explained it to Karzai the first time, they are honored that he is in Afghanistan and fear that things will fall apart if he doesn't come back. He said they all knew that he would come back.
So does he count as a free man?
"Within Kabul I'm a free man," Karzai said.
And while some U.S. officials have said all might not be lost because these Taliban seemed less medieval than they were in their last rule, Karzai disagreed.
"We lost everything," he said.
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